Microsoft’s Age-Guessing Tool Vastly Underestimated the Internet’s Narcissism

Great, thanks.

Screencaps from

You know what people never really think about: age. That’s why no one ever lies about it, or buys wrinkle cream, or surgically alters themselves. So it makes sense that Microsoft was “shocked” when an age-guessing tool it put online went viral. Who would have thought that people would be into something like that??

Corom Thompson and Santosh Balasubramanian are engineers in Microsoft’s Information Management and Machine Learning division. They created to test out new face-detection APIs Microsoft recently released. Users can come to the site and watch it guess the age of people in photos. So who do you think people (Internet users) are going to want to test the algorithm with? If you’re thinking random people from stock images … that’s what the researchers thought, too!

“We assumed that folks would not want to upload their own pictures but would prefer to select from pre-canned images such as what they found online,” the researchers wrote in a blog post. “But what we found out was that over half the pictures analyzed were of people who had uploaded their own images.”

Part of the reason the tool seems to have spread so far is that it’s not very accurate. Nothing makes people feel more calm and disinterested than being mistaken for a person 20 years older than them. To be fair, there’s real machine-learning research going on behind the scenes, but it’s probably classic Internet narcissism—not devotion to scientific inquiry—that’s making How Old? blow up.

“This is a fun story of how we were expecting perhaps 50 users for a test but—in the end—got over 35,000 users and saw the whole thing unfold in real time,” the researchers wrote. Yes, this is a funny story.